28 April 2013
A one-week artists’ C-Scape Grant Award to reside in a shack without electricity or running water, bound by the Atlantic ocean in the Dunes of Provincetown, MA, was offered to me the last week of April 2013. Artists who are not awarded a grant can reserve a week for $500. if accepted into the program. I have always wanted to paint space, looking out as far as the eye could see at the ocean. Now I would leave my blossomed cherry and magnolia trees and rows of first plantings peeked through soil. On the highway east, clouds grabbed the sunrise, simulating peonies hanging in the sky. I met the dune buggy driver in a parking lot in Provincetown. We skidded through the sand like a whip. Chip told me a few things about the shack and left me there. I carried jugs of water from the water pump a hill below, and brought in kindling and logs to get the wood stove started. I ran up the dune cliffs before it would get dark, to see the vast blue-green ocean. Dunes rose up through the shack windows like ocean waves. Next morning, my fingers did not open. It was 30 degrees, so I had to move fast, stoking the wood stove, carrying water jugs, sweeping floors of sand. To keep connection with family, I needed to charge my cell phone in Provincetown. I remember thinking, “I hope I don’t get lost in the dunes.” I set out retracing the inflated tire marks in the sand from the dune buggy that brought me there. I thought, ‘this is a longer walk than what I had imagined.’ What a big surprise that suddenly beach showed up, which I later found was so remote it did not even have a name. Being high noon, I had no directional axis. The dunes were as high as little mountains. I had ½ bottle of water left. Walking in the sand was like walking through snow drifts into which my feet sank 8″. I stem chrystied up and then slid way far down, but, ‘to where?” All that showed up was huge animal paw prints in the sand. The dunes swallowed me up to the very point I heard my voice calling, “Help!’ Four + ½ hours later, the sun was towards the west, which gave me reference. I finally found my footprints and retraced them!!! At the very point I was so lost, terribly frightened and frustrated, I saw the P’Town monument which I kept trying to keep in sight as I went steeply down a dune and climbed back up, a pattern I followed until I heard cars and saw the highway. I struggled through thick bush to avoid a small river. I did not know how long the river traversed, but I climbed back up yet another dune, only to find that the river no longer blocked me from the highway. Last I saw the painters Bob Henry and his wife Selena Treiff was when my painting mentor Jim Gahagan sent me to their loft in NYC in the 70’s, but they remembered me, waiting for me with food, knowing I was lost in the dunes. I returned to the ocean to search for composition after morning chores, with no plan to go to Town again that next day. I attached paper to 2 drawing boards, wheeling my art materials up the cliff on a dolly meant for sand. I saw whales, large black shapes big like elephants gracefully leaping high up out of the water, arcing back down into it’s depths. I saw curious seals that stared at me. I worked until my welded fingers were too cold to hold the crayons which kept dropping into the sand. The wind blew the sand onto the right side of my face which had scratches from it. 6 hours went by fast, the drawings never done, but I had to give up the day.
Not very ‘parisianne appearing,’ I wore a down jacket for the next day’s drawing up on the same cliff, fingerless gloves and a visor. I mixed the colors together to obtain a very specific coastal light, the color finding the shapes. By my third day, I entirely lost track of days!!! Admittedly, I got lost in the dunes again, headed to Town to recharge cell batteries, buy a bottle of pinot noir, a tomato, cheese and bread. What should have taken me one + ½ hrs. to return to my shack turned out to be many more hours. I again got disoriented and lost my sightlines as I descended deep into the crevices of the dunes; when I climbed back up in sand, my sightlines were gone, walking too far to the east. I had to walk another hour west along the cliffs overlooking the ocean. Not only did I not mind, I enjoyed the search, the same way I find my way through a painting. A close friend said, “Good. You are doing just what you are supposed to be doing: getting lost in the Dunes.” A local artist told me that people get lost all the time, many having to sleep outside in the night in the cold because they can’t find their way out. I could probably get a job as a tour guide in the Dunes by now. Immersed in a new rhythm, I spent 6-7 hours each day drawing the ocean from my most perfect perch. Upon return to my shack, there visiting me was a strawberry-blond with dark markings ‘red’ fox; we stopped and looked at each other for a long time, until one of us moved forward, and it was I, and he ran away. I had never seen a fox so close up; the only thing in my mind was how gorgeous he was. (Did I miss the ‘animal fear gene)?’ I was later told he was the result of a coyote and a wolf mating, triple the size of a coyote, not noctural, and eats anything. I lived by sunrise and sunset, unaware what day it was. It was a good day to not get lost in the dunes and to have a new ocean drawing. Each night before going to sleep, I lay flat under the mysterious sky full of brilliant stars, listening to ocean waves. The combination has put me in a good mood for a lifetime. On my last full day, I climbed the cliff to set up my easel again, but the fierce cold wind blew sand in my eyes. Dejected, I kept returning, since winds shift quickly and might work in my favor. One last time, I carried my easel up to the cliff overlooking the ocean, which had a more beautiful light than any time I had seen it, (because there were those thick physical clouds that allow streaks of sunlight to fall through). The wind was just too strong; it would have made a kite of me, my easel and drawing board right over the cliff, (more amusement for the seals). I gave up again, meeting with Kathy, a local who had attended a panel discussion of which I was a part, at the Provincetown Art Assc. Museum years before about Jim Gahagan’s then exhibition, who walked me back to my shack. Even she admitted the dunes shift every time there is a storm, cranberry bogs were filled with water, complicating the dune route more. Even she got lost, which was very good for my pride. I have been painting the ocean back in my Amherst studio since. I make the Holyoke Range Mountains look like ocean waves caught by low hanging, fast moving cloud shadows and light on them, undulating them. The mountains rise up like big furry animals you can reach out and pet, then they lay back down again in the changing light and seasons.
Only once a year does the Holyoke Mountain Range turn that ruby red that I so love to draw. But now I have to accept the turning of the season that flips the mountains back into their burnished siennas and umber-oranges. The winds and rains of Hurricane Sandy forced the leaves off the trees before I was ready to stop drawing. My drawing is now done for the season. The rain poured down at a 90 degree angle, trees bent almost parallel to the ground, and birds flew backwards. To further the point, in a day or so the mountains will turn grey-beige, and then I will have to wait a whole year all over again for ‘that ruby red’ to show up again. (But that’s not to say that I won’t fall in love with the very first stubbly subtle yellow-green of Spring 2013, let alone the imminent snow that reflects the sky about to show up).
I am painting much better than a few weeks ago when I spent most the time scraping back down to surface at the end of each day. I was trying to paint the lava flow of 100 square miles, 40 feet deep, from Malpais, ‘(badlands),’ of my recent visit to New Mexico: the painting began with a myriad of grays from black to white, but I could not hack that, (I, the colorist). I am surrounded by emerald green mountains and hummingbirds back here in lush New England. I have birdsongs and wind and now the sound of rain from which to paint. (My friends in New Mexico told me that when they visited New England, they were blinded by all the green). I had no idea what I was painting for days, (I, who don’t want to waste an ounce of paint)! but alas, in retrospect, I go through this each and every beginning of a painting. As an abstract painter, there is nothing in front of me from which to work. I have to pull ideas out from nothing, but in the end, one always senses landscape anyhow, and I have no idea how I ever got there for the painting yet to come. I love and crave the solitude, from where imagination comes. Giacometti stated that at the end of each day he destroyed all that he did that day and began anew the next day, day after day like that. Only an outsider would say, “oh, that is too bad,” but another artist would know what it takes to ‘get it going.’ Once Brahms was asked how he had spent the day. He responded: “I was working on my symphony,” In the morning I added an eighth note. In the afternoon I took it out.” A month out in the barn painting like this, the painting is “Sweet Rosy Peonies,” filled with seasonal colors, as I now face the beginning of a new painting all over again.
Leaving the lush yellow-green beginnings of spring for the New Mexico desert brought enormous challenges. After long travel, including a 7 hour flight, (haggling with the car rental agency employer about the ‘toy’ matchbox compact car’ offered me, of which I could not see the road over the dashboard, and insisted on an upgrade), I arrived in Grants 3 hours west on highway 40, dodging 75 mph ‘semis.’ I was greeted warmly by my hosts who waited up for me, and slept three hours. Still on Eastern Standard Time at 7am, I looked for breakfast, which I never found, having walked one mile each way in the startlingly brilliant desert light. The poignant pinion smell, or, “New Mexico” smell, brought me immediately into the land of dust and sand and enormous sky. There were many one-story adobe storefronts, (which I could not eat), with dusty old and broken ‘open’ signs, all closed, at that, of signs that said, “Texas Watermelon,” “Turkey Vultures,” Tattoos.” Town had no life in it, except for passing cars and trucks en route to the next towns, and a continuously running cargo train bringing goods east from China, returning to the west coast empty to repeat it again. There were no crosswalks.
My first visit was to the Sand Bluffs at Malpais. ,”(Badlands),” of twisted rolling liquid lava mass frozen in time from 300,000 years ago, which runs 100 square miles 40’ deep. Lava never changes, but it is pores, so that tiny little roots can grow, forming little blue bushes that obscure the lava. Now I have a sense of the power and age of a volcano. The next day I took 371 north, (right between the Continental Divides), off 40 west, at the very road I was instructed to take east to Chaco Canyon, but it was closed, and I had to drive all the way south again to catch another road east, driving and extra 80 miles, but so what? I could not get enough of the space in the landscape. It was as though I was not even driving…I was flying through the landscape. I saw a house built way far deep ‘way out there,’ with electrical wires connecting it to the world. Dust from sand suddenly whipped up like passing ghosts. I saw an antelope, and passed signs that said things like: “Rodeo,” “Bingo,” Bible,” “Talk of the Town Carwash,” (the only action in town), “Church of God,” all of which had in common that they were worn old signs falling apart. Radio stations preached what the Lord says you are supposed to do, and Indian Language shows played their music or told the news or stories…I have no idea which. Once I got back on the right road, there were no road signs, but according to the map, this had to be the right road, I prayed, 14 north, but soon it became a ‘non-road,’ the surface of which was a washboard, dusty of sand that whipped up into the air at every split second my tires touched surface. My first impression, having arrived at Chaco Canyon, was physically being so high up in the sun scorched desert, present at this sacred site, of a people disappeared like @ Macchu Picchu, who chose to live in bitter cold winters and seething hot summers. One is forced to imagine so much about whom these people were. Why did they build here, and why did they leave? At Pueblo Bonito, the architecture informs much about its former inhabitants. The rooms were small, and there were so many of them one could get lost in the maze. There were common entertainment amphitheaters. Wood was carried from a forest far away, used as roof beams in the stone structures. One particular window was aligned to allow the sun to come through at solstice, perfectly aligned for four days. There were moon alignments and stars alignments. Driving back south, Mt. Taylor was parallel to me at a distance, but then jumped ahead, way far ahead, like 100 miles ahead, and I don’t know how it did that, unless I was driving backwards. Out of curiosity, I took the detour onto a sandy road and was instantly asked if I was lost. The people responded well to their new stranger, but I was afraid they would invite me to dinner. There were oil rigs in action and the town smelled thusly; Hosiah is a town of long dusty roads to nowhere. People looked Indian and/or Spanish, with pleasing countenances.
I walked many miles through the beautiful town of Santa Fe. I passed a Guatemalan Church that had a glass box with many handwritten notes dropped in it, stating wishes. There was a poster asking people to do so, if they believed in: doing good in the world, believing in a great power, many things which sounded just fine to me, so I qualified to make a wish as well. As I was writing my wish, my cell phone rang. It was my sculptor friend Janis Mintiks, so I asked him if he ‘wanted in’ on making a wish. He did not hesitate: “To go back to France,” so I wrote a paper for him, too. I then visited a painter in Galisteo, Judy Tuwaletstiwa, and her Hopi husband Phillip, a Crow Indian, a geodesist. I had been navigating maps and directions, driving great distances, for days. That day was extra hot and dry. I arrived unknowingly dehydrated, with a red face and a headache. Phillip greeted me warmly, and Judy hugged me right away, and gave me water and ‘clean,’ good food. Judy took me into her studio, where we stayed talking for hours. Her work is elegant, inventive, playful, intelligently imaginative, working with strings of glass, (things one would never imagine could be done with glass), animal parts, things she finds, (like the skeleton of a crow: she uses everything). Suddenly here in my life are new friends. They live in a refurbished old adobe filled with light, space and love. Philip gave me a DVD “The Mystery of Chaco Canyon,” in which I later discovered what a large part he had as one of the narrators.
From their house I drove on to Albuquerque, another hour’s drive through endless open space, brilliant light, to return my car rental. The man who accepted the car back clocked in that I had driven well over 2,000. miles, (I, who do not like to drive). There I met up with a painter with whom I attended undergraduate school decades ago, Louie D’amico, who runs a clay studio. When Louie touches clay, it turns to gold. He took me to the Rio Grande where we both painted, in Corrales. An impending dust storm closed the roads, so we walked with our easels great distances, fine with me but hard on Louie.
Back in New England, I have been floating through the walls of my house, or, more like flying/hovering, getting stuck in mid-air. My familiar New England landscape welcomed me back home lovingly. There are more birds than when I left, and the trees are coming into full blossom, and lush yellow green in the fields and mountains.
My Aunt Pearl passed away two days after I returned, but the vast New Mexico landscape keeps throwing itself in front of me.
Good painting comes from the pure pleasure of touching paint and moving it with brushes and pallet knives, mixing it to the exact color range of cools and warms. (I was unable to touch paint for a few months even though I was always drawing. I don’t always have paint, but I do always have crayons). This new painting is, in equal increments, full of both struggle and search, lost and found; back and forth like that, I feel like I am at a construction site digging earth and then building earth back up again, carving my way through to the other side. I am still fine tuning this very same painting; it’s has moved along as far as it possibly can, I believe, but then, with fresh eyes the next day, I see yet more to do to pull the painting together even more. As I make these minor changes, major ones are affected and get repainted, so this painting has not released me yet. I could thrive on this canvas for the rest of my life, (just as monks did in Florence at the Academia, painting on the walls of their cells all their ‘praying lives),’ but I want to travel to another country, to explore new ideas that rise up in my ‘dream-sleep. ‘ I always feel so free when I begin a new painting. (I must like being completely lost, because I keep choosing this behavior: thus, a life time spent searching for an image all over again). The success of the last painting in no way helps with the new one, as there are a whole new set of explorations with which to hackle. Once I locate a particular light through the colors, the ideas become engaging ‘en route:’ I just hang around in order to follow their pathways. It is always a color problem that gets me in gear. The color creates the shape, rather than the shape that then becomes a color. Imagine sets of colors, then, that become a whole new place in which to thrive and wonder, a place so compelling that there is no where else I want to be, (until it is time to move on again)!